Dear Rabbi Knopf,
Our 11-year-old son is always asking us for money to buy things and we hate to say no. We are quite privileged and are able to afford most of the things he asks for. But we’re getting concerned that giving him what he wants all the time might not be the best thing for him. What do you think?
When we give kids whatever they want, they develop a sense of entitlement – whatever I want is what I should get. They also fail to learn self-discipline, which is a crucial skill for leading a moral and spiritual life. For your son to develop a healthy moral character, he needs to hear the word “no” once in a while. It’s understandable that you don’t want to upset him, but it’s vital for his development that he is given boundaries.
I would encourage your child to write a wish list and ask him to prioritize what he wants most. Make clear to him that he won’t be getting everything on the list. Even for the things he wants most, don’t give them all to him immediately. Teach him that he sometimes has to wait for the things he wants the most.
You should also talk to your son about the importance of tzedakah and make sure he knows how important it is to you. As his bar mitzvah approaches, I would recommend that you start to talk to him about giving 10 per cent of his bar mitzvah money to charity. Closer to the time, you can talk to him about where he would like to donate and help him decide what causes mean the most to him.
Dear Rabbi Knopf,
Last week, my wife and I got into an interesting discussion about what we want most for our children. My view is that being happy is the most important thing, but my wife thinks that being a good person is more critical. What’s the Jewish perspective?
There’s no doubt that many people agree with you that happiness is the most important thing we can give to our children. Harvard Prof. Richard Weissbourd did some research a few years ago and found that many parents make their children’s happiness their top priority.
Happiness is certainly important from a Jewish perspective, as well. Jewish sources emphasize that when we do mitzvot, we should do so with joy and an internalized appreciation of the beauty of what we are doing. That said, Judaism doesn’t see the ultimate purpose of our lives as personal happiness. In the Jewish worldview, we are called upon to develop moral and spiritual character traits that reflect godliness and behave in a way that brings goodness and holiness to God’s world.
If you think about it, it makes sense that we shouldn’t make happiness our number 1 priority. A person who is raised believing that the most important thing is their own happiness is unlikely to become a person of great moral character. Indeed, about two-thirds of children surveyed by Weissbourd considered happiness more important than “being a good person who cares about others,” and about two-thirds of children believed that it was more important to their parents that they are happy, than that they are good.
If you would be disturbed if your child cared more about being happy than being good, you should consider adjusting your priorities. To be good (and to attain the Jewish ideal of holiness), our children must learn much more than personal comfort. We must teach them that moral character comes from making sacrifices, fulfilling difficult obligations and empathizing with the pain and burdens of others. These are the values that will help them become good friends, spouses, colleagues and parents. It is thinking of others, rather than being obsessed with our own feelings, that allows us to become good people and sets us on the path to holiness.
Ironically, it is also these very values that lead to happiness. They give us the strength to navigate life’s challenges and to deal with difficult relationships. And it is these values that give us the privilege of building a better world. What could bring us more happiness? As it is written in the Book of Psalms: “God’s commandments are upright, they bring happiness to the heart.”
Rabbi Anthony Knopf is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Ora in Montreal and the father of four children. If you have a parenting question for Rabbi Knopf, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to his parenting newsletter, visit his website.